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A Quick Guide To South Africa’s National Parks

How Complete Is this guide? 

South Africa has a lot of amazing national parks and places to visit. Although we try our best, its difficult to cover every single detail about these parks. In fact, you can likely write books about many of these places.  It is far from complete and the guide is still growing. 

If you feel we left something out, feel free to reach out and suggest changes or contribute. 

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Addo Elephant National Park

Overview

Located 72 kilometers from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province, The Addo Elephant National Park is the third largest park in South Africa. The Addo region surrounds the Sundays River, which has its entrance at the mouth of the Indian Ocean.

The park was established in 1931 to protect 11 Elephants on the brink of extinction. Today, the thick bushveld is the sanctuary of hundreds of elephants, as well as Cape buffalos, endangered black rhinos, Transvaal lions, spotted hyenas, a variety of antelope species, hundreds of bird species and the endangered flightless dung beetle.

Mile after mile of the Sundays River Valley is vegetated with evergreen citrus trees that bear fruit all winter and fragrance the air with their blossoms in spring. Interesting fauna and flora can also be found in the Zuurberg Mountains, which falls within the park, such as three rare cycad and two yellowwood species.

The largest remaining population of the flightless dung beetle (Circellium bacchus) is located within the park.

Must See/To Do

Game Drives

Visitors can choose between guided game drives, hop-on guides and self-drive game viewing. Two-hour guided game drives take place in the morning, afternoon and night, as well as at sunrise and sunset. Visitors are also allowed to view wildlife from their own vehicles and local hop-on guides are available to accompany them.

Horse Trails

Visitors have the choice of two horse trails: the Addo Horse Trails (where large game can be viewed from horseback) and the Zuurberg Horse Trails (which does not provide encounters with wildlife but instead offers beautiful scenic views from the mountains.

4x4 Trails

The Bedrogfontein 4x4 trail provides breathtaking views and is rich in history. This route was the scene of fierce battles between the Afrikaner and British and Afrikaner troops during the Anglo-Boer war. Rock art paintings can be viewed throughout the area. From the route a variety of the South African vegetation types can be observed, including riverine thicket, afromontane forest, fynbos and arid nama-karoo.

Hiking Trails

The park offers numerous hiking trails. The Alexandria Hiking Trail is a 32 kilometer, two-day circular trail – with the first day covering a distance of 18.5 kilometers and the second day a distance of 13.5 kilometers. Shorter hiking trails are also available. One-hour and three-hour trails can be hiked in the Zuurberg Mountains, while the PPC Discovery Trail is a short walk in the main camp.

Marine Eco Tours

Visitors interested in seeing a great white shark and/or southern right whale might want to partake in a Marine Eco-tour.

Picnic

Day visitors can enjoy something to eat in the picnic area.

Sources:

The Addo Area, Woodall, Wikipedia, South African National Parks

Agulhas National Park

Overview

Situated at the southernmost tip of Africa in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, the Agulhas National Park stretches for 45 kilometers along the coastline, from east to west, and extends up to 25 kilometers inland. The cold Benguela current, of the South Atlantic Ocean, and warm Agulhas current, of the southwest Indian Ocean, meet at the edge of the Agulhas Bank.

Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first to discover the southernmost tip of Africa on 16 May 1488. In 1999 the Agulhas National Park was declared as a formal protected area not only because of its geographical location, but also to protect the lowland Fynbos, the unique wetland systems, the rich cultural heritage aspects and the diverse marine life of the area.

Cape Agulhas Coast is known as the Graveyard of Ships because numerous shipwrecks of early explorers – attempting to conquer the wild seas off the southern tip of Africa – dot the coastline. The navigators of the 1400’s to the 1700’s, who discovered the sea route around the southernmost tip, observed the sun at noon when it passed the meridian and found that the magnetic compass pointed to true north. Today it points some 25 degrees west of true north.

In the 1700s the Europeans settled as stock farmers in the area and pioneered the merino wool farming industry in South Africa.

Hiking Trails

Agulhas National Park offers two hiking trails. The circular Two Oceans Hiking Trail covers a total distance of 10.5 kilometers, which takes four to five hours to complete. However, two alternative routes with shorter distances are offered on the trail. The circular Rasperpunt Hiking Trail covers a distance of 5.45 kilometers and takes three hours to complete.

To get the most out of your hiking adventure, plan ahead and get a backpack that wont let you down. Check out our in-depth guide to help you find the best backpack: Tested & Proven: Best Backpacks for Hiking Reviewed (2017)

Sources

Information supplied by the Agulhas National Park, Wikipedia, South African National Parks

Kruger National Park

Overview

In the heart of the Lowveld, nestled between South Africa’s northeastern provinces Limpopo and Mpumalanga and bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the iconic Kruger National Park is the largest national park in South Africa and one of the largest national parks in the world. The park is approximately 352 kilometers long and has an average width of 60 kilometers.

The park was first proclaimed in 1898 as the Sabie Game Reserve by the then president of the Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger, and later expanded into the Kruger National Park in 1926. The park was initially created to regulate hunting and protect the diminished number of animals in the park.

In 1927 the first three tourist cars entered the park. Today, hundreds of thousands of local and international tourists enter through the park’s nine gates each year – hoping to catch a glimpse of Africa’s Big Five (the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard and rhinoceros).

Income from tourism and trading activities generates more than R200-million per year, and the Kruger Park plays a major role in the Lowveld's economy.

Park & Ride

Visitors eager to spot the Big Five can make use of the "Park and Ride Scheme."

Hiking Trails

The Kruger National Park offers several trails through its wilderness areas and has numerous rest camps. The duration of all the wilderness trails is two days and three nights. Longer backpacking trails, lasting four days and three nights, are also available. 

If you plan to 

Guided Walks

The park’s guests can take advantage of early morning and afternoon guided walks, where two armed field guides accompany a small group of guests to share their knowledge of the fauna and flora to explain natural wonders.


Game Drives

Morning-, sunset and night drives are available.

4x4 Trails

The park offers several self-drive 4x4 routes ranging in distance from 48 kilometers to 500 kilometers. A guided one-night, motorized adventure trail is also available.

Mountain Bike Trails

Mountain bikes are supplied to visitors, who can then cycle the unspoiled bush along with two armed field guides.

Golf

Surrounded by the rich wildlife sanctuary, the Skukuza Golf Course sits unfenced within the park – allowing for uninvited spectators to make their appearance during a round of Golf.

Bird Watching

The park has an abundance of avifauna viewing opportunities. Some of the bird species in the park cannot be found anywhere else in South Africa.

Bush Braais

A game drive takes visitors to an open area filled with burning lanterns and fires where, whilst listening to the sounds of the bushveld and the distant animals calling, the food is grilled on open fires.

What to Bring:

There is definitely no shortage of fun-filled activities at Kruger National Park. However, as with any visit to a new place, you need to do your research to make sure you make the most out of your time here. While you certainly can bring suitcases full of stuff to visit Kruger, one of the best ways to get in tune with the natural world is through coming with the bare minimum. By only bringing the bare minimum, you will have more of a chance to directly experience the wonders of the natural world all around you. Ultralight backpacking is a growing trend in the backpacking world and is perhaps the best way to enjoy Kruger National Park. Check out our complete guide to help you choose the absolute best ultralight backpack.


Sources:

Wikipedia, South African National Parks, SANParks Annual Report 2014/2015, Kruger National Park

Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Overview

Located at the foothills of the Maluti Mountains in the Free State Province of South Africa, near the Lesotho border, Golden Gate Highlands National Park was officially proclaimed on the 13 September 1963. The park is more renowned for the beauty of its landscape, which offers panoramic views, than for its wildlife.

The grassland biome of the park is pierced by multi-hued, eroded sandstone cliffs and outcrops. Golden Gate derives its name from the color of the setting sun on the west facing sandstone cliffs, especially the picturesque Brandwag Buttress cliff. The park also features the spectacular Cathedral Cave – a 250 meter long and 50 meter deep cavern carved into the sandstone over millions of years by water, wind and fluctuations in temperature.

During the 1800s the plains around Golden Gate was swarming with game – most of which were migratory in nature. Today, the highland habitat is the refuge of a variety of mammals (mostly antelope species), birds, snakes and fishes. The rare bearded vulture (lammergeier) and the equally rare bald ibis can be found in the park.

The Museum Tour displays a depiction of the architecture and life style of the Basotho people from as early as the 16th century to the present day.

Games

The Golden Gate Highlands Hotel offers a tennis court, volleyball and mini soccer ball.

Sources:

South African National Parks, Wikipedia

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

Overview

Situated west of the southern African subcontinent in the Kalahari Desert, the second largest desert in Africa, lies the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The park straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana, and borders Namibia to the west. Approximately three-quarters of the park lie in Botswana, called the Gemsbok National Park, and one-quarter lies in South Africa, called the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park.

The Park was proclaimed in 1931 to protect migrating animals from poaching. Kgalagadi means "land of the thirst." The park is characterized by red dunes, camel thorn trees and dry riverbeds. Two predominantly dry rivers run through the park – the Nossob and Auob Rivers, which are said to flow only once per century.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is especially renowned for watching predatory animals. Mammals, like Namibian cheetahs, leopards, brown- and spotted hyenas and the black-maned Kalahari lions, as well as birds of prey, like raptors, vultures, buzzards and secretary birds, are popular attractions. Seasonal migrating animals, such as blue wildebeest, springbok, eland and red hartebeest, can also be found in the park.

There are an estimated 450 lions, 150 leopards, 200 cheetahs, 600 brown hyenas and 375 spotted hyenas in the park.

Sources:

South African National Parks, Wikipedia

Namaqua National Park

Overview

Namaqua National Park is situated in the western part of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, just south of the Namibian border. The park is part of the Namaqualand region, which falls within the semi-desert Succulent Karoo biome – a biodiversity hotspot with the largest concentration of succulent plants in the world.

The Namaqua National Park was proclaimed on 29 June 2002 for the purpose of conserving the rich diversity of succulent plants. However, people have long since been visiting the area to admire its renowned “carpets” of colorful wildflowers. The landscape, with its breathtaking beauty and contrasting colors, is also a photographer’s paradise.

After the winter rains, tourism peaks during springtime (August and September) when a burst of spring wildflowers appear. Most of the wildflower species are protected under law and visitors who decide to pick themselves a bouquet will face fines.

Seventeen percent of Namaqualand’s plant species are listed as Red Data species.

4x4 Trail

The Caracal Eco Route stretches from the mountains to the coastline to allow visitors to experience a wide range of Namaqua habitats. The distance of the route range from 176 kilometers to 200 kilometers, depending on which tracks are selected.

Mountain Biking

Even though there are no formal mountain biking trails in the park, there are a wide range of roads and terrains which visitors can cycle.

Hiking Trails

The park has two hiking trails (5 kilometers and 3 kilometers) from which visitors can view flowers, as well as a longer hiking trail (6 kilometers) along the coastline.

Bird Watching

Species to search for include Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Cape Long-billed Lark, Karoo Lark, Black-headed Canary and Cape Bulbul.

Picnic

Picnic sites are available throughout the park. Make sure you bring a cooler to keep all your food fresh and your drinks cool. Take a look at this article to find all the best camping coolers available today. 

Sources:

South African National Parks, Wikipedia


Garden Route National Park

Overview

There are few places anywhere on the African continent where you can find such diverse beauty as at the Garden Route National Park. This massive national park has over 150,000 hectares and includes diverse ecosystems from coastal areas where you´ll be able to explore sea caves containing evidence of prehistoric civilizations and watch killer whales swim close to the shore to strings of crystal mountain lakes.

Garden Route National Park is perhaps one of the most diverse areas to explore in South Africa and offers several different ways to explore the park. From weeklong backpacking adventures to canoeing and kayaking, to 4x4 vehicle tours throughout the park, there are several different ways to discover this truly unique and one of a kind place.

Unique Facts and Figures

· Garden Route National Park is made up of over 157,000 hectares

· The Indian Ocean borders the park to the south while the Tsitsikamma, Langkloof and eastern Outentiqua Mountain ranges form other boundaries of the park to the north.

· The area of Garden Route National Park has been occupied by human inhabitants for over 125,000 years.

· Near Klasies Rivers, a number of sea caves containing archaeological artefacts such as stone tools and human skeletons have been found and explored.

· The indigenous San People arrived in the area over 20,000 years ago.

· The area first gained protection in 1964 with the proclamation of the Tsitsikamma National Park.

· In the deep evergreen forests of the park you can find Outeniqua yellowwoods which are massive trees that are easily 800 years old or older.

· Vervet monkeys and even leopards are some of the wildlife you can find in the mountainous regions of the park.

· On the coast it isn´t uncommon to spot bottlenose dolphins, otters, and even killer whales.

· While there is plenty of nature to explore throughout the Garden Route National Park, there are also plenty of beautiful towns with art galleries, golf courses, and craft breweries to help you recover from time well spent in the wilderness.

Must See/To Do

One of the best parts of the Garden Route National Park is that no two people ever experience it exactly the same. The diversity of recreational options along with the diverse ecosystems that make up the park mean that you can literally spend a lifetime exploring all that this park has to offer. While some people may choose to lounge on the beautiful beaches of the warm Indian Oceans, other may hike through rugged evergreen forests trying to spot some of the most iconic wildlife in the park. Still others might seek out the Bohemian nightlife of the beautiful towns while others will head to the rocky cliffs to try and spot humpback whales and other sea creatures. With so much to do at Garden Route National Park, it is hard to focus our attention on a few activities. Nonetheless, below we offer a few ideas of the best ways to enjoy this truly miraculous national park.

Hiking Garden Route National Park

While there are several different 4x4 roads that will allow you to explore the vast areas of the park, the best way to enjoy the natural wonders of this beautiful area is through allowing your own two feet to carry you through some of the hundreds of miles of trails that criss cross the park. For true adventure seekers, the Slackpacker Trail is 63 km of pure wonder that will allow you to experience the several different ecosystems the park has to offer. From beautiful sandy beaches to coastal thickets and dune forests, this several day adventure will let you experience several aspects of the Garden Route. You will also get to canoe down the Touws River for a couple hours during one stretch of the trail, refreshing yourself in the cascades and quality swimming holes.

For people who want to hike Garden Route National Park but don´t feel up to the challenge to take on 63 km, the Dune Mole Rat Trail is a 6 kilometer trail that weaves through wetlands where you´ll be able to catch sight of hundreds of different bird species. For avid birdwatchers, this is a trail that you don´t want to miss.

Finally, another hiking trail we´d recommend is the Elephant Walk where you´ll be guided through elephant trails that meander throughout the Diepvalle Forest. If you´re lucky, you might even find one of the forest elephants in their natural habitat.

The Garden Route from the Air

After hiking through the thick forests and beautiful beaches of the Garden Route, another way to explore this unique area is by getting a bird´s eye view. There are several different tour operators that offer aerial tours of the park, both by airplane, helicopter, and hot air balloon. With small airports located throughout the region, you can even plan out your own trip and stop down at one or several areas throughout the park. If you are looking for a truly unforgettable experience, consider signing up for a hot air balloon ride early in the morning as you will be able to watch the sun rise over the Indian Ocean as the mountains and forests to the west light up with the morning colors.

Learn the Archaeological History of the Area

The history of the Garden Route National Park goes back hundreds of thousands of years and is one of the places throughout Africa to dive into the rich and varied history of the area. While you can find several small museums throughout the park and its surroundings, one of the best ways to learn about the history is through taking a guided 5 day hike along the Hunter Gatherer Trail.

Besides the absolutely stunning scenery you will encounter, you will also enjoy a wealth of information that your tour guide will offer related to the archaeological and geological history of the region. Stone Age workshops that you encounter along the path will allow you to discover what types of tools the ancient Khoisan people used to use to survive

Mountain Biking through Garden Route National Park

Another great way to explore this beautiful national park is by bike. There are hundreds of miles of dirt roads that you can explore without having to worry about too much traffic outside the occasional jeep tour that you might encounter. One of the best bike trails worth exploring is the Harkerville Red Route. This roughly 22 km trail will take you along the Harkerville coastline offering breathtaking views of the rocky coast below. While the trail is rather strenuous, you will also enjoy biking through some old growth, indigenous forest before emerging from the woods with views of the Indian Ocean.

Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour

Who wouldn´t enjoy flying through the tree line that you share with monkeys and other forest life? The Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour is an absolutely fantastic way to explore the forest canopy where you are likely to encounter tucacos, monkeys, and all other types of birds and wildlife that live up off the forest floor. While this is definitely an adrenaline type experience, you will also learn plenty about the beauties of South Africa´s indigenous forests.

Table Mountain National Park

Overview

Situated in the city of Cape Town in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, Table Mountain National Park is a uniquely urban nature reserve – fragmented by urban development and privately owned land. Beaches, bays, valleys, forests the Cape of Good Hope and the famous Table Mountain are all incorporated into the park.

Table Mountain National Park was proclaimed on 29 May 1998 to protect the natural environment of the Table Mountain Chain. In 2011, Table Mountain was declared as one of the world's new seven wonders of nature. The mountain and acclaimed landmark offers spectacular views of Cape Town as well as unique flora. Table Mountain National Park is part of the Cape Floristic Region World Heritage Site.

The other two sections of the park are the Silvermine-Tokai section and the Cape Point section. The Silvermine-Tokai section was formed from the Tokai State Forest and the Silvermine Nature Reserve. The Cape Point section covers the most southern area of the Cape Peninsula and includes Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope.

Unique Facts and Figures

  • The park includes 25,000 hectares of the Cape Peninsula Protected Natural Environment, as well as 1,000 km² of the seas and coastline around the peninsula.

  • Because the park has open access, it is the most visited of all National Parks – with 4.2 million visitors annually.

  • The park has 8,200 plant species – of which around 80% are fynbos. Many of the plants found in the park are endemic.

  • The Cape Floral Kingdom is the only kingdom confined to one continent.

  • Table Mountain National Park is included as part of the UNESCO Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site.

  • The main feature of Table Mountain is the level plateau, which is approximately 3 kilometers from side to side.

  • The highest point on Table Mountain is towards the eastern end of the plateau and is 1,086 meters above sea level.

  • Table Mountain National Park and Cape Town have a Mediterranean climate – characterized by typically hot, dry summers and short, wet, yet mild winters.

Must See/To Do

The Cape of Good Hope

The top tourist destination is rich in cultural and natural heritage. Wildlife, including eland, red hartebeest, bontebok and zebra, are found in the area. Visitors can visit the two lighthouses situated at the most southwestern point in Africa. Cape of Good Hope also offers hiking, surfing, angling, picnicking, beaching and cycling opportunities. Free guided walks are also available at Cape Point. The Cape of Good Hope Hiking Trail is an overnight hiking trail.

Boulders Penguin Colony

A colony of endangered, land-based African penguins can be viewed at the Boulders section of the park, which is situated in Simons Town. There are also three beaches and three boardwalks in the area.

Table Mountain

The mountain offers a variety of hiking trails – ranging from light strolls to rigorous hikes. The summit of the mountain provides spectacular views of the city, while the ascent takes visitors through the ancient, indigenous Afromontane forest. A shortcut to the top of Table Mountain is also available via the Table Mountain Arial Cableway.

Lion’s Head

Lion's Head is the peak to the right of Table Mountain when facing it head on and offers a short but popular hike with 360 degree views of the Atlantic seaboard, the city and Table Mountain. It has become popular to hike Lion’s Head in groups during full moon.

Signal Hill

Signal Hill, the Northern-most tip of the terrestrial area of the park, is a popular viewpoint which offers excellent views of the city and harbor. It is from here that the noon day gun marks 12:00 in Cape Town.

Silvermine

Silvermine offers some of the best hiking trails in the park, which passes by fynbos landscapes, a dam, a river and a waterfall. Bird spotting, picnics, dog walking and mountain biking are also favorite activities in the area.

Beaches

Table Mountain National Park has a variety of diverse beaches on offer.

Fishing/Extractive Diving

The Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area is a popular fishing area for shore and boat-based fisher people as well as extractive divers.

Scuba Diving

The Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area is a scuba diving haven. What makes the area popular among divers is the numerous wrecks that scatter the coastline as well as the six restricted areas ("no take" zones) that have been established as breeding and nursery areas for marine species. Popular dive sites include the Maori wreck off the Sentinel in Hout Bay, Oudekraal on the Atlantic Seaboard and Miller's Point and Smitswinkel in False Bay.

Surfing/Windsurfing/Kite Boarding

A plethora of rocky points, reefs, beaches and open ocean Atlantic swell provide numerous breaks that work in different conditions.

Rock Climbing

Table Mountain, with its rocky ledges and huge boulders, attract climbers from all over the world.

Picnic/Braai

The park has numerous picnic and braai (to grill on open flames) areas.

Hang/Paragliding

There are numerous designated launch areas in the park, including Lion's Head and Silvermine.

Horse Riding

Popular horse riding areas include Tokai, Noordhoek Beach and Black Hill.

Forest Walks

Apart from Table Mountain’s Afromontane Forest, the park also includes Newlands Forest, Orange Kloof in Hout Bay and Echo Valley and Spes Bona on the Muizenberg mountains.

Sources:

South African National Parks, Wikipedia, Siyabona Africa